by Edward Appleton

Why? The simple three letter word forms one of the central questions to any research quest: once we’ve completed our behavioural detective work, identified patterns, looked at top box scores… the next question is invariably: why is that?

It’s something we do almost automatically.

But just how rich or valid are the results generated? How often are they likely to be really “insights”?

Behavioural Economics reminds us constantly that we often don’t know why we do what we do; System 1 is the unthinking driver, with System 2 mainly enjoying the ride in the back seat….

It’s something many of us have experienced – the tacit frustration with the open-enders in a quant survey, yielding no really rich ah-ha responses…..

Maybe we’re to blame. Too often, slipping in a “Why is that?” question doesn’t get very far – but it’s a palliative. We tick the box – diagnostics? Check!

Does our thinking, our diagnostic tool-kit need renewing?

Big Data, predictive analytics will likely narrow down the areas of genuine bafflement that demand diagnostics – maybe it’s time to focus on getting better on that area of exploration, be it in qual or quant.

First up: we should acknowledge that asking many kinds of questions directly often leads to surface-level responses, that at worst can be misleading. Direct questioning can easily result in post-rationalisation, defensiveness, justification narratives – rather than anything more emotional or honest. Very few participants have the chutzpah in a research context to counter the “why?” question with the “why not?” answer…;)

Maybe the “why is that?” question is the least useful of all open-enders – and the most dangerous. It sounds so harmless and simple – but can lead us nowhere.

Maybe it’s time for to explore work around’s.

Here’s some suggestions on how to avoid asking “why” when something else might work better.

  1. Use “What for?” rather than “Why?”

Re-focussing questions on the “what for” can make sense in many types of research, as it does two things: i) it gently explores the personal meaning, the benefits or personal value behind something ii) it focusses on the future rather than the past, which avoids the implicit challenge or questioning of a previous response.

If participants interpret the question “why” defensively, then it can come across as “You liked that? Wow….why??” – not a good way to get an authentic response.

So probes might be “What do you get out of it?” or “What led you to….” Or “What does ….mean to you?”

  1. Use Associative Techniques

Asking people to explain a behaviour puts them on the spot, and suggests an interrogation rather than an exploration.

Getting to underlying emotions – likely the true drivers – can be done by exploring what moods are associated with a given situation….., plus an understanding of the surroundings, the occasion….. Suggestive rather than narrowly descriptive.

  1. When, What, Who…..Get to Context

There are plenty of other “w” questions to replace the “why” with – contextual ones, such as “where, when, what, who with, what (was the situation)?”

Onerous – maybe, certainly time-consuming. But likely time well-spent. Going “broad” is often an effective, if deceptively simple way for getting insight “depth”. Surface details count.

  1. Set more Tasks

Getting people to actually do things is often more powerful – revealing – than asking them to imagine their likely reactions.

Tasks force actions, which then switch people’s mode onto something more natural or flowing results in responses becoming richer. Want to know what happens if a mobile suddenly dies – ask people to show you what they would do, not just describe it.

  1. Build in Diaries

Diaries – online, real-life, mini-pre-tasks – , allow people to describe situations, and share in their own words what they feel, think, their frustrations, excitement, moments of boredom…the word “why” isn’t needed.

Story-telling techniques work well here – focussing on something particularly interesting or puzzling, inviting participants to say a little more about …… it’s a simple, unobtrusive way of getting people to “open-up”.

It fosters spontaneity, minimises the filter of self-judgement, and gives more direct access to emotions.

  1. Observe Before you Ask

Ethnographies are rightly enjoying a revival – in mini-form (half-day in-homes), self-directed with mobile, within a mixed modal research design over a number of days….they allow an authentic, more accurate documentation of a given situation – who’s there, what’s the atmosphere, the pain-points that are forgotten just an hour or so later.

This sort of technique shows potential tensions between attitudes and behaviours – people who claim to be only water-drinkers then being observed drinking lots of lemonade.

The probing question then makes masses of sense – again, if done in a genuinely curious, non-confrontational mode. “You said you like water a lot in the original questionnaire, but actually you drank a lot of lemonade over the next few days…..can you tell us more about that?”

There’s more – contextualising and deepening first insights with cultural understanding, for example; decoding signs and symbols through semiotic analysis techniques….– but it’s clearly challenging to resources, planning, budgets even.

If all the above sounds like it isn’t going to fit your (quant) research design – then maybe the trend to moving back and forth between qual and quant needs to accelerate.

Curious, as ever, as to others’ thoughts.

Edward Appleton is Director Global Marketing, Happy Thinking People